Theatre: An Important Voice of the Township Experience

January 13, 2024
2 mins read


By Shaun Hutchinson

Tuesday, September 16, 2008.

For over 70 minutes at the Soho Theatre’s compact, low- ceilinged and intimate studio space.On a bare, floor-level stage, South African writer and actor Omphile Molusi uses every ounce of his acting and story-telling skills in an intense performance, capturing the reality of post-apartheid South Africa.

With the sainted Nelson Mandela at the head, South Africa has positioned itself as the ‘Rainbow Nation’, where the legacy of the hated apartheid system is a distant memory – other then recent exposures of anti-foreigner violence, AIDS epidemics and violent crime. Of course, the formal racist structures are now long gone and an African middle class and political elite can live a First World lifestyle.

But the reality is a shell-shocked, divided nation, where the architects and beneficiaries of the separate development era walk free, the economically most powerful maintain a tenacious hold on power, and the Black African majority live much the same as during the apartheid years.

It is the lives of this majority that the 2008 Edinburgh Festival Fringe First Award Winner Molusi dramatises with a rapid-fire and eloquent script, sheer physical presence, an expressive, bilingual voice, and several characters.

Itsoseng – Xhosa for ‘wake yourself up’ – turns up the volume on voices often unheard and unveil the volatility of these communities, where failed promises have created a time bomb waiting to explode.

Itsoseng township in 1994 was a precursor. The political leadership of the apartheid-created Bophuthatswana puppet regime was overthrown, and all symbols of the administration were destroyed; but the area still awaits regeneration. The flagship shopping complex was amongst the first buildings to be torched and from this hulk of a building Mawilla (played by Molusi) takes up the story 14 years after these violent events. 

Mawilla is bitter, irreverent, tragic and articulate. Molusi – who has an impressive acting and writing CV – prowls, dances and creeps around every inch of the stage in an emotionally demanding performance.

That he also gives voice to several other characters – including a young prostitute, a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, and various township types – is all the more remarkable. 

Importantly, the writer, whose play grew out of an essay about his hometown, also asks searching questions. The derelict shopping complex is one of the few things that gave meaning and hope to their lives –- and an income; why destroy them – even if they are symbols of oppression.

At the same time the love of Mawilla’s childhood lurches from prostitution to unwanted pregnancies, to abortions and early death – paralleling an ambivalent frustration with a traumatised society and dreams and illusions shattered.  

These are unsettling questions and on the strength of his powerful and compelling performance the 27 year old – who lived in Itsoseng from the age of 13 – dominates the near capacity studio theatre audience. A standing ovation and two curtain calls was their verdict. Omphile Molusi is an important voice of the township experience.

© 2008

Image by St Lucia Jazz.

Shaun Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine’s arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.

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